Book Review: Mark Lee's 'Knocking at the Open Door' is a heartfelt, absorbing memoir of his years with J Krishnamurti

Knocking at the Open Door
My Years with J Krishnamurti
RE Mark Lee, Hay House, New Delhi, 2015

When I was eight years old, Mark Lee taught me English at Rishi Valley School. I mention this not really as a disclaimer, nor even because I think I can attribute what I know of the language to him — but because he left an impression. Partly because he was tall, broad-shouldered and American, but mostly because he was such a genial, encouraging presence, ready with a joke or some thoughtful advice. He was ‘Marklysir’ to all us RV kids, one scrunched-up word said in many squeaky kiddie voices.

Not much else from my eighth year has stayed with me, but my memory of Lee has, and rather vividly.

I use that word “thoughtful” advisedly, because it best describes the Lee I found in the pages of this book, and in both meanings of the word. He thinks things through, and he thinks of others. I suspect that if you got close to J Krishnamurti, you would have to be a thoughtful human being — I suspect it’s what he wanted you to be — and that’s what’s in evidence here, page after page. Lee is introspective about almost everything in his life — Krishnamurti too, naturally, since he was such a great part of Lee’s life — and he shares that spirit with us in this book. And perhaps that’s why it’s such a compelling effort.

Knocking at the Open Door: My Years with J Krishnamurti

Or perhaps it’s compelling because it is no hagiography. Undoubtedly, Lee has a great deal of respect for one of the 20th Century’s more beloved philosophers; undoubtedly Lee has been greatly influenced by him. That shows. But he has by no means written an unvarnished recounting of Krishnamurti’s greatness. That would have been a tiresome book, and this one is very far from tiresome.

And I think I had an idea it would be this kind of book. While at Rishi Valley, I was too young to get any kind of sense of Krishnamurti and his ideas. But nearly 40 years later, I did — on a visit to Ojai, his home in California (and where he died). Ojai is also where Lee lives, and that’s really why I went — to see him again after all those years. I stayed at the Krishnamurti Retreat there, and my host urged me to watch some of their enormous collection of Krishnamurti videos. The one I picked at random was a talk he gave at Rishi Valley. When I wrote later about Ojai and Rishi Valley, I had these lines about the video:

“[The students] look up at him as if at a god come to life. ‘What shall we talk about?’ he asks. There’s no answer. He looks around, then asks it again. There’s still no answer, and naturally so. … [He] asks again and again, and then he says: ‘Don’t just sit there like lumps of – ha ha – human beings, talk to me, ask me questions, have a dialogue with me … Do you understand me? Do you understand English?’

Why does he badger school kids this way? [He] has done nothing more than harangue a couple of hundred [of them] without saying anything of significance or interest.”

I sent my essay to Lee with a little trepidation. How would he react to what I had written — “badger”, “harangue” — about his mentor? I should have known: he had a few factual corrections, but he let my criticism stay.

Much of this book is about Lee’s time in Ojai, especially about founding and running the Oak Grove School, following Krishnamurti’s ideas, there. The project is beset with difficulties from the start: Krishnamurti’s vision, writes Lee, “morphed into a challenge that I saw as fraught with problems.” When Lee turns to Krishnamurti for guidance on such issues, he gets no help but instead more questions. “This was … a pattern that I was unable to break over the next ten years … It was difficult for me, and often for others, to push the discussion further.”

This expression of a certain frustration, if you like, is a theme that runs through the book.

In discussing the hiring of teachers for Oak Grove, for example, Krishnamurti tells Lee that he “wouldn’t be at all concerned about their history or their credentials”. Instead, he would “get a sense of what I felt about them: look at their fingernails, look how they combed their hair, and see how they conducted themselves.”

Fingernails? Really? Lee comments: “All my interview experience pointed to a process that was more comprehensive and inclusive.”

In an early lunch meeting with Krishnamurti at Rishi Valley, Lee inadvertently let a serving spoon touch his plate. Krishnamurti said: “Now the spoon is contaminated, be careful, Brahmans don’t do that.” Lee recognises that Krishnamurti “adhered to the ancient Brahman traditions”, including this one about spoons. Then Lee makes this telling observation: “According to [Krishnamurti], when we behave mindlessly and without attention as traditions have devolved … then traditions are meaningless and should be dropped.”

I actually stopped reading there for a few minutes, conscious of Lee’s quiet rebuke of his mentor.

Elsewhere, Lee writes of regular meetings with Oak Grove’s trustees in which Krishnamurti expressed “dissatisfaction” with the school. This feeling “rarely led to substantive change”, because Krishnamurti would ask a “question that was impossible to answer”: “Have you produced even one boy who is free?”

Indeed, how do you answer that?

Lee and Krishnamurti share an intimate, complex relationship that this book paints in persuasive and moving detail. Even as a youth, and long before meeting Krishnamurti, Lee is drawn to the kind of life questions he later finds Krishnamurti asking of him and others. Perhaps it is in hindsight that he fully understands that. But even so, he is always honest and open about the influence this unusual Indian man had on his life. If I expected a glowing portrait of Krishnamurti, I would have seriously underestimated Lee. For in the end, this is a book that grapples with the ideals Krishnamurti speaks of, but grapples no less sincerely with the realities of his and their shortcomings. In a world filled with less-than-perfect human beings, it’s those realities that make Lee’s book such a heartfelt, absorbing and valuable memoir.

Being so, it speaks to me most of all of Mark Lee. For I mean no disrespect to Krishnamurti when I say that the remarkable man who emerges from this book is not him, but Mark Lee.

This is one boy who is free.

Updated Date: Mar 05, 2016 11:46 AM

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